The Lion City Sailors did not get an ideal start to their maiden Singapore Cup voyage on Thursday (27 October) night, as they were held to a frustrating 3-3 draw by Balestier Khalsa at the Jalan Besar Stadium. 

In an open game which saw both sides recording more than 20 shots each, the Sailors – led by two-goal hero Maxime Lestienne – took the lead three times but defensive lapses allowed the gritty Tigers to come back on each occasion to claim a point. 

At the end of the game, Sailors interim Head Coach Luka Lalić was left wondering what could have been.  

“This is not the first game that ended this way for us. Instead of going into half-time with a big lead, we put ourselves in this situation. We lost focus after scoring and were a bit shaky at the back – which were the issues we had previously. 

“This game shouldn’t have ended as a draw, but that’s the reality,” said the 35-year-old.

The Sailors got off to an assertive start and took a deserved lead in the 14th minute, with Faris Ramli nodding home Hafiz Nor’s pinpoint cross for his third goal in two games.

But Balestier hauled themselves back into the game just eight minutes later with Kuraba Kondo sweeping in after Daniel Goh’s shot was spilled by Izwan Mahbud in the Sailors’ goal. 

After wasting a few chances before half time, the Sailors reclaimed the lead in the 47th minute with Maxime – who asked questions of the Balestier defence all night – firing into the bottom right corner after great work by Faris to set him clear. 

The visitors then restored parity again – through the same man – eight minutes later as Kondo cut inside Hariss Harun before slotting past Izwan. 

Luka’s men went back ahead at 3-2 on 57 minutes with Maxime producing another moment of magic as he raced down the left courtesy of Kim Shin-wook’s through ball, expertly giving his marker the slip before slamming it in from a tight angle. 

But Peter de Roo’s Tigers levelled it up for a third time on the night, through Shuhei Hoshino who converted from close range after Izwan could only parry Delwinder Singh’s shot into his path. 

The Sailors kept going in search of the winner in the latter stages of the game but could count themselves unlucky not to leave with all three points. Saifullah Akbar was denied by the post a minute after coming on as a 72nd-minute substitute, while fellow substitute Gabriel Quak saw his goal on 81 minutes controversially chalked off offside. 

After Izwan pulled off a wonder save to deny Goh on 89 minutes, the Sailors could have stolen it at the death – in the fifth and final minute of injury time – but Shin-wook could only direct Gabriel’s cross straight at Balestier custodian Hairul Syirhan. 

The result meant the Sailors are now joint-second in Group A with Balestier, behind Albirex Niigata (S) who thrashed Young Lions 4-0 in a concurrent match, with the Sailors looking for more improvement ahead of their second group match against Young Lions next Monday (31 October). 

“We have to continue to work hard,” said Luka. “We have to work out the things that we didn’t do well in this game and do better in our next match.”